Restoration and conservation of a rare Tintoretto

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins by Tintoretto

Paintings by the 16th-century Venetian artist, Jacopo Tintoretto, are extremely rare in historic house collections. Bought by Lord Bearsted in 1939, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins was displayed in pride of place at Upton as one of the focal points of the recently created Picture Gallery.

Tintoretto’s family name was actually ‘Robusti’. He was raised surrounded by sumptuous colour; his father was a dyer ‘tintore’ and it’s from this that he took the name Tintoretto, or ‘little dyer’. 

Tintoretto ranks second only to Titian among the Venetian painters of his time and had a prolific and successful career. Whereas most of Titian's later paintings were done for foreign patrons, Tintoretto worked mainly for Venetian clients and was the dominant figure in supplying religious pictures for the city's churches, government buildings and palaces. This painting is one of the few examples of his work in an historic house, hence the importance of this painting at Upton.

Tintoretto was a gifted storyteller and was famous for painting bold, colourful, and dramatic depictions of biblical events, such as Upton’s picture. However, the painting’s appearance is currently spoiled by old restorations and layers of yellowed varnish that make this lively and complex scene feel static and flat. 

Extract from a letter to Lord Bearsted recommending the Tintoretto
Words of recommendation about the Tintoretto
Extract from a letter to Lord Bearsted recommending the Tintoretto

A new look through research and conservation

A fascinating new conservation and research project will aim to uncover Tintoretto’s original vision for the work and allow us to better understand what is believed to be a painting from the early stages of his career. 

Lord Bearsted certainly felt the picture to be of great significance and was no doubt influenced by picture dealer and restorer, Horace Buttery, who wrote to him before he bought the Tintoretto, saying: ‘Sir Kenneth Clark and other experts on Venetian painting have all been enthusiastic about this picture – a recent discovery of mine – as an important unrecorded early period work. The picture is beautiful in colour – rose-pink, grey and gold – and the subject is amusingly treated’.

Following technical analysis, Upton’s painting will travel to the National Trust’s conservation studio at Knole in Kent. It is hoped new information discovered during research will not only allow visitors to see the many layers of the painting itself, but also to delve into the many layers of its story. 

Our Property Curator Michelle Leake says: ‘Many visitors to Upton walk past this wonderful picture without even noticing it. The image has darkened to such an extent that its original liveliness and incredible detail are now very difficult to see. I hope this project will transform the picture and allow it to be viewed in an entirely new light’.  

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins close up detail
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins detail of ladies and dog with drinking bowl
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins close up detail

The project begins

The research and conservation work on Tintoretto’s The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is expected to take 12-18 months. It’s a very significant project, and Senior National Conservator for Paintings Rebecca Hellen gives an idea of some of the illuminating things we can expect to find out:

‘Due to trade links across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the Venetian palette is famous for its quality and variety. During treatment we hope to identify the pigments and paints used, carry out x-radiography and infra-red reflectography to understand more about how this piece relates to other paintings by Tintoretto and his family workshop. Most importantly we hope that Tintoretto’s dramatic use of colour and light will be revealed once more and that the work be returned to its collection both well understood and looking absolutely its best.’

The painting has been packed up and sent off on the first leg of its conservation journey. Overseen by our Property Curator Michelle, its first stop will be for technical analysis that will inform what happens next. More updates to follow......